In the Same Boat: April – June 2017
Not so very long ago, folding kayaks and inflatable canoes were the paddling world’s unloved stepchildren, widely seen as pool toys or the playthings of eccentric adventurers. But the times they are a-changing. Today’s “stow boats” are eminently practical, do-anything, go-anywhere craft. And that’s why Tamia keeps a couple of them on a closet shelf.
Take a Stow Boat to … Anywhere
by Tamia Nelson | April 4, 2017
Don’t get me wrong. I like my little Old Town Pack canoe. A lot. And I’d feel the same way even if she weren’t one of the last surviving members of a dying breed now that Royalex is no more. Yet good as she is, the Pack has one glaring deficiency: she’s 12 feet long. Of course, 12 feet isn’t very long as canoes go. My Old Town XL Tripper stretched all the way out to 20 feet. But if you’re hoping to take a bus to your next paddling destination, or grab a cabin on a slow boat to what used to be called Cochinchina, or tow your boat behind a bike … Well, then, 12 feet is something like nine feet too many.
The bottom line? Bigger isn’t always better. And there are times when even hardcore hardshell boaters will find that it makes sense to…
Take a Stow Boat, Instead
OK. You won’t find “stow boat” in any paddling glossary. I’ve just coined the tag (I think). But it emphasizes the thing that makes inflatable and folding boats stand out from the crowd — their stowability. From coracles to Ultra Large Crude Carriers, every vessel is the product of countless design compromises. Boaties — they’re the maritime counterpart to foodies — like to put it this way: “Light, strong, cheap. You only get to pick two out of three.” And this is true, as far as it goes. But there are other criteria besides weight, strength, and cost. Stowability is one example. Conventional canoes and kayaks don’t score high here. But folding and inflatable craft do.
Inflatables have a rich history. The ancient Assyrians used inflatable bladders to ferry their armies across unbridged rivers, and nearly three millennia later, the physician and explorer John Rae took a Halkett “air boat” with him to the Arctic. Folding kayaks have a much shorter pedigree. Though collapsible canvas canoes made their appearance in the 19th century — Rae had one of these, too — Johannes Klepper didn’t sell his first Faltboot till 1907, by which time John Rae had been dead for 14 years. Notwithstanding Klepper’s late entry into the stow boat stakes, however, his folding kayaks — and their many imitators — captured the public eye for fifty years or so, until universal car ownership made the folder’s easy portability less important to recreational paddlers. Luckily, a corporal’s guard of diehard fans kept the flame alive during the second half of the 20th century, and if (when) the private car goes the way of the Conestoga wagon, folders will once again be in the ascendent.
That may take a while. But you can count me among the corporal’s guard of fans. I’ve never had any doubts about the utility and capabilities of stow boats. Farwell and I used to run bony stretches of Class III-IV whitewater with a like-minded couple whose chosen craft was a rather battered tandem Folbot. (If you’re over 50, you can probably remember seeing the Folbot ads — “fits in every home or car” — on the pages of Popular Mechanics. Sadly, Folbot is no more.) Still, I’ll be the first to admit that stow boats are an acquired taste. Is there one in your future? There just might be. Consider these pluses:
You can find a place for a folder or inflatable in the smallest apartment. Try that with a hardshell boat. Even my little Pack is a tight squeeze when brought into the living room. (I know this because I used her for a coffee table one winter.) And I blanch at the prospect of toting her up several flights of stairs, let alone trying to get her into an elevator. But my inflatable canoe and folding kayak fit neatly on a closet shelf.
Stow boats go the distance. Are you hoping to bring your hardshell canoe or kayak with you on a commercial flight, or persuade Amtrak to accept it as accompanied baggage? Good luck. And don’t even think about taking it on a cross-country bus trip. A hardshell will prove a mighty hard sell when you’re trying to convince a driver to stow it in the luggage bay of his bus. (There’s one possible alternative if you’re heading south, however: See if you can hitch a ride on Air Force One. I hear it makes regularly scheduled flights to Florida, and once the press corps have been sent packing, there’ll probably be room to spare for your XL Tripper. Don’t be shy about asking. After all, if you hold a US passport you’re already paying for the air miles. You might as well get something for your money.)
Happy trailering! Yes. All right. You say that the idea of taking the Mar-a-Lago Weekend Express doesn’t appeal. I understand. Truth be told, it doesn’t appeal to me, either. But maybe you’re crazy enough to want to cycle to a put-in that’s nearer your home. (Don’t worry. You’ve got company, though I’ll admit there aren’t many of us.) If that’s the case, you’ll find it’s much easier to tow a boat in a bag in a conventional bicycle trailer than it is to drag a 10- to 20-foot-long tail behind you, especially on winding, windy mountain roads.
All cars are not created equal. Not into cycling? Rather use the family car? You’ve got a lot of company, then. But now that rain gutters and metal bumpers have gone the way of spats, celluloid collars, and bicycle clips, car-topping a small boat has become something of a dark art. There are spells and incantations to overcome the difficulties, to be sure — an entire industry has grown up around bespoke roof racks and their many appurtenances — but this legerdemain is rather pricey. And racks leave your boat exposed and vulnerable. Stow boats, on the other hand, fit neatly inside your car, and they travel incognito.
Rental car restrictions? Laugh at ’em! Or maybe you’d rather rent a car for your next trip. This can be problematic. Many rent-a-car agencies don’t allow you to tow a trailer or fit a roof-top rack, but they won’t care if you carry a bagged boat in the trunk of your rental. It’s just luggage. A hint: Put a plastic sheet down on the trunk floor to protect the carpeting from water, mud, and sand.
The bottom line (almost). With a stow boat, the world is yours to explore. Whether you drive your own car or a rental, cycle, or walk to the put-in, your inflatable or folder is with you all the way, all the time. That’s why it’s also a great choice for amphibious treks — journeys that mix and match cycling or hillwalking with paddling.
Not convinced? Does all this sound too good to be true? Well, you’re right. It is. Because stow boats have their share of shortcomings. Here are a few:
Both inflatables and folders have fabric skins, and fabric is, er, fabric. If you’ve gotten into the habit of scraping your canoe over granite ledges, slamming it into the riverbank when landing, or dragging it onto the shingle while it’s still fully loaded, you’ll need to learn new habits. Or to put it another way, you’ll need to relearn some old habits. You have to treat your stow boat like your grandfather treated his treasured wood-canvas Prospector. Modern fabrics are surprisingly strong — the world’s special forces use folding canoes and inflatables in hostile operational environments, after all — but they’re not Royalex. That said, Royalex hasn’t exactly gone the distance, has it? Don’t get me wrong. You don’t need to baby stow boats. You just need to recognize that they’re not indestructible. But then, you’re not indestructible, either, are you? Why would you expect your boat to be any different?
And stow boats aren’t instant boats. This drawback isn’t often considered by prospective owners, but it should be. Getting a hardshell canoe or kayak ready for the water can be almost as simple as removing it from the roof rack or trailer. Folders and inflatables take longer. The names give the game away. Folders have to be assembled — unfolded, if you will. Inflatables have to be…wait for it…inflated. Both jobs take a little time — sometimes half an hour or more — and you’ll probably have to sweat a bit, into the bargain. A couple of pieces of advice: If you’re usually the last person in your group to arrive at the put-in, set your watch ahead by an hour the night before every trip. And if you’ve got a brand-new stow boat, practice making it ready for the water at home before you take it on the road. Practice makes perfect, in this as in all else.
Of course, once you get to the take-out, you’ll have to reverse the process, and when you get home you’ll want to clean and dry the boat before stowing it. Shoving a wet boat into a bag and then thrusting it into an airless closet isn’t exactly a recipe for trouble-free ownership. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. Hardshell boats also need care. They have to be securely lashed when you’re on the road, protected from sun and snow when they’re stored outside, and periodically wiped down. You’ll also have to revarnish any wooden thwarts, rails, or seats from time to time. Hardshell or stow boat — it makes no difference. There’s no such thing as a free launch.
Want a boat to call your own? But you can’t find a place for a hardshell canoe or kayak in your new apartment? Take heart. And then take a stow boat to…well, just about anywhere you want to go. Bon voyage!
Solo paddlers and couples who travel in the same boat often discover that the hardest part of a trip is getting themselves back to the put-in. Luckily, there’s a handy gadget that can make the job much easier. It’s called the bicycle. Tamia thinks this is a wheely good idea, and after you’ve read her latest column, you may think so, too.
The Secret of the Solo Shuttle
by Tamia Nelson | April 11, 2017
Back in the days when canoes carried freight on many North American waterways, rivermen often had to go against the flow. But I doubt they ever learned to love the rigors of upstream travel. It was all in a day’s work, to be sure, but it certainly wasn’t fun. Which is why today’s recreational paddlers are no more eager to “climb the river” at the end of a trip than downhill skiers would be to sidestep and herringbone back up the mountain after each run. Of course, ski areas have long since done away with any need for such retrograde exertions. But there are few T-bars or chairlifts on rivers, so paddlers wanting an easy way back to the put-in must turn instead to that beast of all burdens: the family car.
Car shuttles are so commonplace nowadays as to require little description. But they’re a comparatively modern innovation. As recently as 1956, Lawrence Grinnell felt it necessary to devote several paragraphs in Canoeable Waterways of New York State and Vicinity to a detailed explanation of what he called “the private motor ‘planting’ system.” Notwithstanding the clumsy tag, Grinnell’s idea caught on, and for good reason: It works well. At least it does for parties of paddlers with several vehicles at their disposal and a group member who has the instincts and natural authority of a regimental military transport officer (or alternatively, a complaisant, non-paddling “shuttle bunny”). And if neither of these alternatives obtains, many outfitters are willing to step into the breach — for a price. You can also attempt to hire someone local to do the honors. Enquire at the Griner Brothers Garage first.
In other words, today’s paddlers are spoiled for choice. Nonetheless, there will always be a few independent, penurious souls who prefer to do it all themselves, yet who find car shuttles burdensome or impossible — if they have only one car at their disposal, say — and who don’t want to spend the better part of every day on the river struggling against the current. Fortunately for them, there is another way. It’s sweatier than a conventional shuttle, and it’s not without risk, but it works. And all you need to do is…
Get on Your Bike
The bicycle is now your shuttle vehicle. You either drop it at the take-out and pedal back to retrieve your car at day’s end (before returning to pick up your boat), or you drop your boat at the put-in, leave your car at the take-out, and then pedal to the put-in to begin your trip, picking up your bike when you’re done for the day.
All in all, the logistics need be no more complicated than those involved in organizing a car shuttle. And there’s a bonus: Your legs get as good a workout as your arms. But nothing is perfect. The paddler who depends on a bicycle to close the circle in her off-water transport scheme must accept certain trade-offs. Bicycles are easily damaged, and they’re eminently portable, as well. So before you leave your two-wheeled transport unattended for the better part of a day, it pays to take reasonable precautions against theft and vandalism.
It’s also worth noting that not all bicycle shuttles are a ride in the park. Some involve 15 or more miles of strenuous cycling, often with frequent, steep climbs. Others require that you negotiate winding, potholed roads with no shoulders and heavy traffic. Anyone who last straddled a bicycle on the day before his 16th birthday has no business in such places. That said, most paddlers can become competent, confident cyclists if they’re of a mind, and many will be glad of the exercise. A few may even grow to prefer bicycle shuttles to car shuttles.
But first things first. If you find the idea of a bicycle shuttle intriguing, and you want each leg of every trip to go smoothly, it’s important to lay the groundwork well in advance, beginning at the beginning, by…
Scouting the shuttle route beforehand. And the best way to do this is on your bike. Hills appear much steeper when seen from the saddle than when glimpsed from behind the wheel. The ups and downs of topography loom large in every cyclist’s life — if you’re out of shape, they can loom very large, indeed — and it’s not at all unusual for a tired paddler to prefer a 20-mile shuttle on a gently graded road to a three-mile-long “shortcut” that requires climbing Breakwind Mountain, particularly when the climb is followed immediately by a breathtaking descent on a switchbacked gravel track pitched at something like 20 percent. (A word of warning: Braking at speed on gravel is never a good idea. Steering isn’t that easy, either.)
The bottom line? If you’ll be shuttling on two wheels, scout the road as well as the river. You won’t regret it. And when making your preliminary plans, don’t overlook the value of the topographic maps and satellite photos now available online for the price of a click. The maps will tell you how steep the grades are; the photos can give you some idea what’s happened in the area since the quad was last surveyed. If, for example, you find evidence that the local forests are now being felled to make way for a shopping complex or an upmarket vacation-home development, you may want to abandon the idea of a bike shuttle. Sharing a narrow two-lane road with hurtling logging trucks or construction vehicles is no sane person’s idea of a good time.
Give the put-in and take-out close inspection, too. This is particularly important for the solo boater, who’ll need to conceal his unattended bike and boat from passersby. Some put-ins and take-outs make this easy. Others make it impossible. You’ll want to know before you go. What’s that? You say you don’t like the idea of leaving your bicycle unguarded? You’re in good company. Farwell doesn’t either. He once finished a pleasant day on the water only to find that his shuttle bike — a nearly new English touring machine — had been twisted into a fair imitation of a pretzel by some person or persons unknown, though it’s a safe bet that the vandal wasn’t in the employ of the local chamber of commerce. In any case, Farwell is much more careful now. His recommendation? Use an old, unprepossessing bike for shuttling. Or bring your bike along with you in (or on) your boat. Folding bikes make this easier than it sounds. At the very least, invest in a camouflage cover and a good lock. But don’t put too much trust in any lock. Whoever destroyed Farwell’s tourer used the heavy security chain as a Spanish windless to buckle the wheels and frame. (Is a U-lock the answer? Probably not. You’re not likely to find a handy bike rack in the forest primeval, and a U-lock is perfectly U-seless when you’re locking up to a three-foot DBH white pine.)
You’ll also want to remove any portable items before leaving your bike. These include bags, pumps, cyclometers, water bottles, and the like. Light fingers and acquisitive eyes aren’t restricted to the streets of urban centers. In fact, what with chronic unemployment, rampant drug use, the growing number of seasonal residences that stand unoccupied for much of the year, and casual-to-nonexistent policing, rural areas often experience surprisingly high levels of property crime.
More prosaically, make sure you give as much thought to how you carry your bike on your car as you do to securing your boat. Owners of pickups and panel vans will find such multi-tasking easy. Drivers of subcompacts may not. And commercial bike racks for small cars carry big price tags. So plan ahead. That’s always good advice.
Relying on a bicycle to return to your car after a day on the river won’t appeal to many paddlers, but for some — solo boaters and one-car families, say — it may be the only way to manage impromptu trips on not-too-demanding rivers. And who knows? You just might discover that you’re having as much fun in the saddle as you do when you paddle. If that’s not win-win, I don’t know what is.
Boxed macaroni and cheese makes a memorable camp dinner — for all the wrong reasons. But not all macaroni cheese meals are equally bad. This week, Tamia reports on one brand that breaks the mold.
A Better Box of Macaroni Cheese
by Tamia Nelson | April 18, 2017
Let’s face it: By reputation, boxed macaroni and cheese is a meal of last resort, a glutinous melange of limp pasta coated in something that has the texture and appearance of white glue. (This resemblance is not entirely coincidental. Casein glue and cheese are kissing cousins.) And the reality of most macaroni cheese meals often lives up — or down — to their reputation. But to give the devil his due, macaroni cheese is also filling, reasonably calorie-dense, easy to prepare, and cheap. It travels well, too. Which is why it has a place on many paddlers’ menus. Including mine.
Which doesn’t change the fact that there’s an element of penance in sitting down to a such a meal. Even if hunger is the best of sauces, you have to be mighty hungry indeed to elevate the typical HyperMart macaroni and cheese to the level of a gourmet treat. Yet there are exceptions, and I’ve just discovered one:
Annie’s Shells & Real Aged Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese
It was serendipity, really. For some months now, Farwell has been in and out of far-distant surgical clinics, on the off chance that something could be done to lift the clouds obscuring his vision. And every such pilgrimage has entailed overnight stays. Thrown on our own resources in strange cities, and compelled to watch every penny, we’ve often fallen back on meals prepared in motel rooms, where the cooking facilities were limited to a microwave and a coffee maker. The good news? It was worth it. Farwell no longer walks into closed doors. Better yet, given half a chance (and a favorable slant of light), he can even distinguish a chipmunk from a chickadee with a high likelihood of success.
Anyway, on the last of our sojourns among the temples and palaces of modern medicine, I found myself hurrying down the endless aisles of a HyperMart several times larger than a zeppelin hanger, pausing just long enough to grab a box of macaroni and cheese before scurrying off to make a quick supper for the two of us. I expected that the meal would be filling and easy to prepare, but never, in my most optimistic moments, did I imagine it would be tasty.
I was wrong. The box I’d grabbed was Annie’s Real Aged Cheddar, and much to my surprise, the promise implicit in the “enlarged to show detail” photo on the package was fulfilled: Once out of the box and on the table, the stuff actually looked good. More importantly, it tasted good. It seemed that when Bernie — his “rabbit of approval” can be found on every Annie’s product — said something was OK, it really was.
Good old Bernie. But I wasn’t ready to accept his judgment as final — not before putting it to a further test, at any rate. A hasty meal eaten in a down-at-heel motel room wasn’t exactly a definitive trial, especially when the diners were each preoccupied with thoughts of the upcoming operation, a gamble that Farwell — ever the optimist — repeatedly compared to playing Russian roulette with live rounds in three of the six cylinders. Happily, though, the hammer came down on an empty cylinder. And later, after Farwell had adjusted to again seeing what he was eating, I broached a second box of Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese, resolving that this time around it would be the centerpiece of a leisurely lunch.
The results were encouraging. Read on.
First — all right, second — impressions. The box contains a generous handful of small pasta shells and an envelope of powdered cheese sauce. (Total weight? 6 ounces. The package copy claims that it yields “about 2.5” servings, but I suggest that canoeists and kayakers treat this with appropriate skepticism.) On peeling open the envelope of cheese sauce, I smelled the unmistakable aroma of, yes, cheese. That was encouraging. The orange “Trump tan” color of the sauce was a bit off-putting, I admit, but it comes from annatto, a dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree and (in the words of some anonymous Wikipedia author) “a traditional colorant for Gloucester cheese since the 16th century.” It’s also a commonly used colorant in commercial “yellow” cheddars. That’s good enough for me, and I was delighted to find no mention of the synthetic azo dyes known as FD&C 5 (tartrazine) and FD&C 6 (“Sunset Yellow”) in the list of ingredients. In my experience, chemistry does not always make for better living.
Quantity. As I’ve already noted, no canoeist or kayaker should take the suggested serving size seriously. A box was just about enough to satisfy two sedentary — and somewhat preoccupied — adults snatching a hurried meal in a motel room. It also made a satisfying lunch for the two of us at home, but I’d urge that active paddlers consider each 6-ounce box to be no more than a single serving.
Ingredients and Nutrition. The ingredient list on the box is short and to the point. You can review it online if you’re of a mind. Salt and saturated fat are on the high side, but then this is macaroni cheese. It’s not oatmeal.
Preparation and clean-up. I always try prospective camp meals at home, under simulated field conditions, before I add them to my paddling menu. This time was no exception. I made several minor adjustments, however. In preparing Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese, I used low-fat milk from the fridge rather than reconstituted powdered dry milk. I departed from the package directions slightly, as well, adding less water than called for when boiling — I used a two-quart pot — and employing the offset-cover-and-tilt method to drain the cooked pasta. (The package suggests using a colander, but I’ve never carried a colander afield. Does anyone?) I also reconstituted the cheese sauce in a separate vessel — a Sierra Club cup, as it happens — using butter and milk from the fridge.
Clean-up was facilitated in the usual way, by adding a small amount of water to the still-warm pot and allowing it to stand while Farwell and I ate lunch. This made it much easier to remove the cheesy residue later.
So far, so good, but…
The proof of the pasta is in the eating. And how did Annie’s Real Aged Cheddar taste? Not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, it’s the best boxed macaroni cheese I’ve ever eaten. The sauce was a bit thin and runny, but this small failing is easily remedied if you have a brick of cheddar in your pack. A few shavings will do the trick.
And cost? What about cost? I’ve left the worst till last. Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese isn’t cheap. I paid around two bucks a box. I figure it’s worth it, though. You can get better mac and cheese for less if you make it from scratch, but if you want the convenience of a prepackaged macaroni cheese meal, and if you’re not prepared to settle for something tasting vaguely of laundry starch and wood glue, you’ll likely have to pay the price.
The Bottom Line
You can take Bernie’s word for it. Annie’s Shells & Real Aged Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese makes the cut. Just don’t imagine that you can feed 2.5 hungry paddlers with one box. You can’t. But if you budget for one box per paddler, and then add a slab of bannock or a bagel, a few carrot sticks (for Bernie), and a couple of handfuls of dried fruit, you’ll have the makings of a pretty fair quick meal. So … What’s stopping you? Hop on over to the HyperMart today!
We all like to think that we’re sensible, and we know that sensible paddlers don’t venture onto the water alone. But what about those times when we do? We lay down rules for ourselves, of course — rules made in the hope that they’ll keep us out of trouble. Tamia’s no exception. She’s got her own set of rules for solo jaunts. They’re her “ten commandments,” if you will, and they’re the subject of this week’s column.
On Going Alone
by Tamia Nelson | April 25, 2017
All the experts agree: Sensible canoeists and kayakers never paddle alone. Yet who among us is always sensible? If the day dawns bright, warm, and welcoming, and if your work schedule leaves you free to march to the beat of your own drum, you can’t help feeling the tug of the woods and waters, can you? But what if it’s the middle of the week, and your paddling club doesn’t run mid-week trips? Or suppose that your usual partner is unable to join you. Do you resign yourself to a glorious day spent moping about indoors? I know I don’t. And I bet you don’t, either.
We all know the risks. When you’re on your own, you’ve no one to turn to for help when things go wrong. Yes, a cell phone may bring assistance. But then again, it may not. There are still places — not all of them remote — where cell phone coverage is spotty or nonexistent. And there’s also the “red face” factor. If you’ve shattered a leg or suffered a heart attack, you can put your misfortune down to bad luck. There’s no shame in coming up craps when fate rolls the dice, after all. But what if you just forgot to bring a map? Or spare batteries for your GPS? Do you want to see your name in the paper alongside that of a hiker who called for a chopper because her strapless heels gave her blisters? Probably not. It’s also worth noting that some park authorities now send bills to backcountry holiday-makers who log “frivolous” emergency calls, and it’s a safe bet this will become more common as wilderness rescue budgets get tighter. In other words, you could pay a very high price indeed for leaving your map behind on your desk.
OK. We know the dangers. But we still go it alone from time to time. Well, most of us do, at any rate. That being the case, what can we do to reduce avoidable risks to a minimum? I’m sure you have some ideas. So do I. And here they are:
Tamia’s Ten Commandments
That’s putting it a bit strong, I suppose. But since “Ten Essentials” (now “Ten Essential Systems”) is already taken, and since “Tamia’s Ten Earnest Suggestions” seems a little lackluster, I’ll run the risk.
1. Tell someone whom you trust where you’re going and when you’ll be back. This is sometimes called leaving a “float plan,” and it’s imperative. If nothing else — if, for example, you’re home alone and you’re just going out for a quick afternoon circumnavigation of Golden Pond — leave a note where your spouse or partner can find it on his (or her) return. It should include all the relevant details: When you left, where you’re going, and when you’ll be back. And then make damn sure you do get back when you said you would.
2. Always carry the Ten Essentials. Always? Yes. Even if you’re only going for a stroll in a nearby woods. Because You Can Never Be Sure. And don’t omit the Eleventh Essential: Knowing how to use these Ten Essentials when the chips are down or the balloon goes up. (Relax. I don’t charge extra for clichés.) This Eleventh Essential is every bit as important as the first ten, but you won’t find it in your Acme Backcountry Explorer’s Kit. You have to get it the hard way — by dint of practice and experience. There are no shortcuts and no substitutes. ‘Nuff said?
3. Bring plenty of drinking water. Yes, drinking water is one of the Ten Essentials, but it’s important enough to warrant a paragraph all its own, especially if you paddle in hot weather. (And we’ll all be doing a lot more of that in the years to come.) The days when you could dip a cupful of water from the lake and drink it without a second thought are long gone. Yet, as Jerome K. Jerome reminds us, “thirst is a dangerous thing.” Be prepared.
4. Dress for the temperature — the water temperature. This is always important, but it’s especially so during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Not many of us like wearing rubber underwear on a balmy spring day, but a T-shirt and shorts will offer only cold comfort if you take an unplanned swim in 50-degree water. And cold can kill. It’s worth sweating a bit in a rubber suit to make sure it doesn’t get a chance to kill you.
5. Wear your PFD. Summer and winter. In quick water and still. When paddling, lining, wading, and scouting. Yes, even if you’re an Olympic swimmer. PFDs were once called “life preservers,” and I wish the name had stuck. It’s a salutary reminder of their raison d’être. There are few sights more disheartening than watching the PFD you brought along “just to be legal” (and immediately shoved under the bow deck) float away from your swamped boat, especially after you’ve snorted your first lungful of water.
6. Bring a spare paddle. Do you know any canoeist or kayaker who hasn’t dropped (or broken) a paddle at least once? I don’t. And when it happens to you, you’ll find yourself up a well-known creek if you don’t have a spare blade tied into your boat. Why “tied into,” you ask? Because a paddle that’s just tossed in the bilge can easily drift out of reach in a capsize, that’s why. It’s also likely to be stepped on, and if you break your spare, you’re no better off than if you left it behind on the dock.
7. Be sure to eat between meals. Mother might not approve, but then she doesn’t always know best, and this is one of those times. Food is to your gut what coal was to the massive boilers of HMS Dreadnought. No coal, no steam, no way on. No food, no strength, no go. Regular snacks will keep your internal turbines spinning. Eat lightly, but eat often. Pick high-energy foods like nuts, fruit, and cereal bars. Cyclists who don’t snack on the road soon run out of steam. They call this “bonking.” (NB: The word may be misinterpreted on the other side of the Pond. Language is slippery stuff.) Runners speak of “hitting the wall.” And paddlers? We don’t seem to have a word for it. But it happens to us anyway.
8. The better part of valor is discretion. This was Falstaff’s excuse for cowardice, but there’s a measure of truth in his words, nonetheless. If a freshening wind or a contrary current makes it unlikely that you’ll get where you planned to go in the time you’d allowed, don’t press on. Turn back, instead. Long-time correspondent and professed meanderthal Barney Ward, who blogs about his travels at Old Fat Man Adventures, likes to wander around in some of North America’s driest landscapes. So he’s developed an ingenious way to make sure he doesn’t meander past the point of no return. He uses a simple water clock. When he’s drunk half his water, he turns back toward home — whether or not he’s reached the destination he’d penciled on his map. The moral of the story? Solo travelers need broad margins of safety. Tomorrow is another day. If you’re doing what you’re doing just for the fun of it, there’s no goal worth dying for.
9. Observe the Gross Tonnage Rule. The nautical rules of the road are laid down in print and bear the authority of statute. They require that power-driven vessels shall “keep out of the way” of sailing vessels and any other craft “restricted in [their] ability to maneuver.” That’s comforting, to be sure. But it’s false comfort, at best. Only a very foolish paddler chooses to rely on her privileged status when crossing a busy shipping channel or circumnavigating a lake whose surface is churned by the crisscross wakes of beer-fueled powerboaters. Instead, the prudent paddler will comply with the Gross Tonnage Rule. It’s unwritten, and it has no legal force or effect. But it is in every canoeist’s and kayaker’s interest to observe its simple dictum: If a vessel is bigger than you are (or faster than you are), stay out of its way. No exceptions.
10. Know your limits and observe them. That may be the most important commandment of all. None of us is so strong or so expert that we can be sure we’re equal to every challenge posed by water, wave, and wind. And hubris — overweening pride — invites the wrath of Nemesis as nothing else can.
If all of us were invariably sensible, we’d never venture onto the water alone. But we’re not always rational beings, are we? And taken all in all, that’s probably a very good thing. Still, there’s something to be said for setting up a few safety fences before we test the boundaries of unreason, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with my “ten commandments.” What about you? When you go out on the water by your lonesome, what do you do to ensure you make it back home? Let me know, and I’ll pass the word along.
Salmon do it. Shad do it. Even eels do it. But few paddlers ever try running a river the wrong way round. And that’s too bad. There’s a case to be made for going against the flow, at least now and then, and this week Tamia makes it.
Going Against the Flow
by Tamia Nelson | May 2, 2017
I‘ve spent a lot of time in the company of the dead over the years — dead creeks, that is. There’s probably at least one Dead Creek on most Canoe Country quads. Don’t be put off by the name. The Dead Creeks I’ve known have been mighty lively streams, favorite haunts of waterfowl, beaver, and trout. Of course, they’re also good places to make the acquaintance of multitudes of mosquitoes, every one of whom is itching to get up close and personal. But I don’t reach for a spray can of some unpronounceable poison and launch a chemical strike. I just slap on a little repellent, don my headnet, and roll down my sleeves. It’s worth the small inconvenience. Though mosquitoes are always keen to dine at our expense, they themselves are fast food for a long list of insectivorous birds. It’s natural justice, if you will — a case of the biter bit — and anyway, a world without mosquitoes would be a much poorer place.
You get the picture, I’m sure. Why, then, are these vibrant havens lumbered with such a lugubrious name? It’s usually a question of gradient. “Dead” creeks live up to their label in one important respect: They move at a measured pace, meandering unhurriedly through well-watered landscapes of alder, spruce, and birch. From time to time you may come to a riffle or easy rapid requiring careful negotiation, and there’ll likely be an occasional beaver dam to challenge your steeplejacking skills, but there won’t be much to quicken the pulse of a hardcore whitewater buff. And that’s one of the charms of dead creeks. They invite leisurely exploration and two-way travel.
Here’s how it’s done. Get an early start. Plan to be on the water just as the sun is painting the tops of the surrounding hills with golden light. Then spend the morning paddling or poling your way upstream. When the sun is at its highest, eat a leisurely lunch on the hogback of a convenient esker. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a glacial erratic to serve as your table. Afterward, doze in the sun (or wet a fly or paint a picture) for an hour or two before returning to your boat and beginning the languid drift to the put-in. There’s no need for haste. The force is with you now. Which means you’ll have time to stop every so often to explore an inviting backwater or gawp at a stand of towering white pine. You’ll still arrive at your starting point before the lengthening shadows bring down the curtain of the night.
Does this sound like a pleasant way to spend a late spring day? It is. And I’m surprised that more paddlers don’t do it. Perhaps the explanation lies in what I can only describe as our one-way mindset. We’re so accustomed to letting gravity decide our direction of travel that we’ve almost forgotten how to…
Go Against The Flow
Don’t get me wrong. Upstream travel can be sweaty, exhausting work. But if your chosen stream is a gentle one, and if you’re content to measure progress in hours per mile, rather than in miles per hour, you may well find that the pleasures of a trip upriver vastly exceed any pains. Moreover, the return journey is a cinch. The river will then be going your way.
Let’s look at some of the advantages:
You’re spared the nuisance of organizing a shuttle. There’s more than a soupçon of irony in the fact that almost all “no-octane” backcountry adventures begin and end with a road trip in the family car(s), often involving much toing and froing between put-in and take-out. In fact, it’s not unusual to spend more time on the road than you do on the water. And while two-way jaunts won’t eliminate the drive to and from the put-in — unless you choose to travel to the put-in by bicycle, that is — they do remove any need for a shuttle. This can mean an extra hour (or more) in your boat.
Starting your trip by paddling upriver also makes life easier for one-car families and solo boaters. Shuttling cars may be no more than a time-consuming nuisance for groups, but it’s a daunting challenge for paddlers with only a single car at their disposal. A bicycle can always be pressed into service to get around the difficulty, but beginning a day’s outing by heading upriver cuts the Gordian knot of trip logistics. Your put-in is now also your take-out, and the only “shuttle” you need to organize is the one involved in getting your boat and your gear from your parking spot to the water and back again.
You can boldly go where no roads have gone before. It’s hard to believe that the engineers haven’t built a highway to every possible access point on every waterway in Canoe Country, complete with extensive paved parking, a tourist information center, a gazebo, and at least four food carts. And yet … Wonder of wonders, even in districts where the chambers of commerce have been busiest, there are still streams that are touched by roads in just one or two places along their entire length. (Don’t ask me for a list. I don’t want to give the engineers any ideas.) Organizing a typical go-with-the-flow day trip on such a stream can be impossible. But if you don’t mind going against the flow at the start, you’re in with a chance.
Upstream travel is a great teacher. Nothing sharpens your understanding of the dynamics of moving water like a few hours spent fighting a river’s pushback. When you have to buck the current every foot of the way, eddies become much more than play spots — they’re now vital refuges and critical assists. Moreover, the necessarily slow pace of upstream travel gives you ample time to take in all the lessons the river is eager to teach you.
You get two trips for the price of one. The Greek philosopher Herakleitos had a thing about rivers, and as I’ve had occasion to note before — in columns that are now almost as inaccessible as Herakleitos’ lost texts — much that he wrote about moving water rings true. He wasn’t a paddler, however, and he went badly astray when he suggested that “the path up and down are one and the same.” They’re not. Still, you may be afraid you’ll be bored when returning by the way you came, retracing your strokes at day’s end, so to speak. But you’ll be surprised at how the waterscape alters in appearance when you’re going with the flow. In part, this can be explained by the change in the angle of the light as morning gives way to evening, but there’s more to it than that. Much more. It’s really an altogether different river. And because you had ample time to learn the river’s tricks on the upstream leg of your journey, all the surprises on your return trip should be welcome ones.
Virtue is rewarded (for once). You’ll have to work hard to make headway against the contrary current. But if you persevere, you can claim your reward on the home stretch. Your muscles labored to bring you upriver. Now you can let gravity bring you back. In all probability, you’ll be able to spend long minutes drifting and dreaming as the current wafts you along. Enjoy the ride. You’ve earned it.
With any luck, you’ll leave the madding crowd behind. In a memorable paragraph, the 1964 Wilderness Act evoked images of protected places where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Even at the time, this was a bit of a stretch. It must have been written by someone who knew very little of history, either human or natural. But nowadays even the illusion of wilderness is hard to come by. Many wild rivers resemble water parks or carnival midways, at least on summer weekends. And while such boisterous crowd scenes can be entertaining, very little remains to remind a reflective paddler of the “untrammeled” earth.
That said, a few of the many Dead Creeks dotted around Canoe Country still defy the best efforts of local chambers of commerce to lure legions of punters to the water’s edge. These are the streams that don’t offer whitewater thrills, where multitudes of mosquitos stand ready to torment the casual visitor. Which means that — if you choose carefully — you’ll probably have “your” Dead Creek pretty much to yourself. And even if you do happen to meet other paddlers on the upstream leg of your trip, it’s more than likely they’ll be headed downriver. So you’ll have just enough time to exchange friendly greetings in the minute or two before the current parts you. Soon the sibilant silence of the river will enfold you once again, broken only by birdsong and the soft sighing of the wind in the trees.
And lastly, who among us doesn’t occasionally feel the urge to swim against the current? It’s not a secret vice. It’s not even something to be ashamed of. It’s a sign of character, as sportswriter (and sometime poet) Grantland Rice knew full well:
Where the shore is waiting, the minnows play,
Borne by the current’s undertow;
Drifting, fluttering on their way,
Bound by a fate that has willed it so;
In the tree-flung shadows they never know
How far they have come from the old, brave dream;
Where the wild gales call from the peaks of snow,
“Only the gamefish swims upstream.”
OK. It’s not “Ulysses,” I admit. Nonetheless, it’s a tuneful jingle. And it makes a point that needs making. Sure, most of us are minnows, most of the time. But it’s fun to play the gamefish now and then, isn’t it? You bet it is! Rivers can run only one way — in the direction dictated by the iron law of gravity. But river runners have a choice. We can go with the flow and follow the water on its circuitous journey to the sea. Or we can thumb our nose at gravity and work our way upriver, matching our muscle and guile against the water’s relentless, untiring pushback. Or we can do both in a single day. I think that’s the best course of all. Why not give it a try sometime?
Click on the image to embiggen.
Last week, Tamia made the case for emulating the gamefish and paddling upstream. Not as an everyday thing, to be sure — but as a change of pace from the usual gravity-assisted one-way river trips. And this week? She offers a primer on how to do it. Just in case you ever feel the urge to join the returning salmon and head upriver.
Becoming a Gamefish
by Tamia Nelson | May 9, 2017
Tired of being a minnow? Do you sometimes dream of becoming a gamefish, at least for a day? I thought you might. And there are good reasons to give it a try, if only to free yourself from what might be termed “shuttle dependency.” Of course, the gamefish lark isn’t for everybody, and it’s not for every river. If you’re of a mind to emulate the salmon, you’ll still need to choose the right water. Steep mountain torrents and big, muscular rivers aren’t good candidates. At least they’re not good choices for beginners — or for anyone who paddles for the fun of it. But that leaves you plenty to choose from. You just have to look at a few quads to start building your list.
OK. If you’re still reading, you probably find the idea appealing. But unless you’re already a seasoned gamefish, you may need a little help getting started. After all, upriver travel doesn’t figure prominently in the modern paddling syllabus. Many canoeists and kayakers have never given a moment’s thought to going against the flow for any longer than it takes to execute an upstream ferry. Traveling upriver is something altogether different. Gaining ground against even a modest current requires a trained eye and strong arms, along with no small measure of guile. It’s something you learn by doing. You can’t acquire the necessary skills by reading or watching a video. That said, a few pointers may gentle your ascent of the learning curve. So here’s…
My Guide for Would-Be Gamefish
First things first. I’m assuming that you’ve mastered the art of downstream travel, at least to the point that running Class II-III rapids is no longer a heart-in-mouth affair. And I’m also assuming you can read water well enough to pilot a canoe or kayak unscathed through a modest rock garden. You have a fully outfitted boat (flotation, spare paddle, and painters), too, along with a properly fitted PFD and the right kit for the water temperature: drysuit or wetsuit or shorts and T-shirt, whichever is appropriate — though I’d urge neophytes to stick to warmwater streams, if possible. Finally, you have a couple of buddies who are keen to accompany you on your maiden voyage upriver, and at least one of them is an old hand.
So far, so good. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re not at the put-in yet. In fact, the next step is…
Finding a river. The perfect stream has a modest gradient and a minimum of hazards, whether natural (falls) or man-made (dams, barbed-wire fences strung from bank to bank). A pool-and-drop stream is ideal, provided that most of the drops are riffles rather than rapids. And as I’ve just said, warm water is a plus. I urge beginners to make their first upriver trips in summer.
If you can read a quad — that’s another essential skill, and one that I neglected to mention — you’ll have little trouble recognizing suitable waters. Sometimes the name is enough. As I noted last week, if you find a “Dead Creek” on the map, it’s a likely candidate. But don’t rely on your map-reading alone. Scout your stream before the big day. Ride your bike to the put-in. Walk the bank. Talk to any local paddlers you meet. And before you wet your blade,…
Make sure you won’t be trespassing. If the banks are studded with posted signs, go somewhere else. And even if you don’t see any signs, keep your eyes open and your antennae extended while you’re scouting. Notwithstanding the implied promises on chamber of commerce websites, many rural dwellers won’t extend the hand of friendship to strangers planning to paddle “their” rivers. The reasons for this hostility are many and varied, but it’s important to remember that lawless enterprises aren’t confined to urban centers. The upshot? If someone makes it clear that you’re not welcome on their river (or their road), you’d be wise to take the hint — before they let their pit bulls loose.
Now, let’s look at…
Some suitable streams for apprentice gamefish. And no, I won’t be giving map references. Half the fun of canoeing and kayaking lies in discovering places to paddle, and I’ve no wish to deny you that pleasure. With this in mind, here’s a view upriver of a stream I”ll call — what else? — Dead Creek:
All the land you see is public, by the way.
Next, check out this rivulet meandering through a wildlife-rich bog. (The wildlife include a few million mosquitos. Be prepared.) It’s narrow, but not too narrow for a kayak or solo canoe.
Now here’s something a little livelier,…
And another example, livelier still:
This last river is no place for neophytes, but if you’ve given the snowmelt-laden spring floods time to subside, and if the returning sun has had a chance to do its work in tempering the water’s chill — you can use this opportunity to hone your eye and toughen your muscles on gentler streams — you shouldn’t find the climb upriver impossibly challenging.
So much for the snapshots from my album. Let’s consider a few practical matters, beginning with…
Choosing the day for your maiden voyage. Low water and warm — those should be your watchwords. Summertime is the right time, and as luck would have it, the New Model Climate is bringing summer to Canoe Country waters a little earlier every year. Impatient paddlers will rejoice, I suppose, though the change is bad news for trout and other coldwater species.
Stow a short, single-bladed paddle in your boat. It can do double duty as your spare, but even if you’re a kayaker, it should be a single-blade. A double-blade will be all but useless on a narrow stream, particularly if tree branches hang low over the channel. You can’t make any headway against the current if you can’t get a purchase on the water. This is where a “pudding stick” or other small paddle will earn its keep. Practice using it before you need it, though. Kayakers, in particular, will need time to get the knack of asymmetric propulsion.
Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet. It’s a rare trip upriver that doesn’t require wading. Dress accordingly. And always wear something on your feet. Sandals are a good choice in warm water, and working watermen in cold climates often wear hip boots. I’ve used them myself on occasion, but I don’t recommend them. While hip boots won’t “drag you down” if you capsize, they do make swimming almost impossible, and close-fitting neoprene hip waders will actually buoy your legs up, forcing you to fight to keep your head above water — a battle you’re likely to lose if you tossed your PFD in the bilge rather than putting it on. The bottom line? Never wear hip boots in rapids, and if you wear them anywhere else, always keep your PFD snugged down and zipped up. Better yet, if you’re tempted to don hip boots or hip waders for upriver work, put on your PFD and go for a swim in them first, with several good friends standing by to help in case of need. Then think again.
Tell someone that you’ll be heading upriver. Letting a friend or family member know where you’re going is always a good idea, but it’s particularly important for aspiring gamefish. If you’re late getting back, the people looking for you are almost certain to search downriver from your put-in — unless they know you were planning to head upstream. And they won’t know that unless someone tells them. Make sure that your someone knows what your plans were.
The Great Day Has Come
You point your bow upriver and head away from the put-in. If you’ve chosen well, you’ll find that it’s less work than you feared, but it’s still more taxing that going with the flow. Don’t be dismayed. Although you can’t get a free ride — gravity is no friend to gamefish — you can get a helping hand from the river itself. You just need to take advantage of variations in current speed. In brief, that means hugging the inside of bends and keeping as close to shore as is feasible. You can see how to put this strategy into practice in the following photo (click to embiggen):
The blue arrow shows the direction of flow, and the orange trace marks the approximate location of the little river’s thalweg, where you can expect the current to be strongest. (Strictly speaking, the thalweg is a geographic feature and not a hydrologic one, but since Smith and Stopp’s The River Basin refers to it as the “thread of fastest flowing water,” I’ll risk incurring the ire of the geographers.) Note that sandy points and gravel bars are depositional features, sure indicators that the river is slowing down and dropping some of its burden of sediment. Consider these to be wayposts placed for the convenience of aspiring gamefish. Note, too, that our intrepid canoeist’s track — it’s the dotted white line — jogs repeatedly from bank to bank as she positions herself to round each successive bend in the river. The upstream ferry is one of the most valuable tools in the contrarian paddler’s bag of tricks.
Of course, you likely won’t have an aerial photo to guide you on your ascent — I’ve yet to see a paddler navigating a river with a tablet in hand — but the hard-won knowledge of practical hydrology that you gained on downriver runs will stand you in equally good stead when you go against the flow. In this sense, at any rate — and despite what I suggested last week — Herakleitos got it right when he observed that “the path up and down are one and the same.”
There you have it — my guide for would-be gamefish. I hope you find it useful. And while I doubt that going against the flow will ever become the norm, it would indeed be heartening to see two-way travel return to little rivers. After all, it was a commonplace in the centuries before the automobile became every paddler’s most important accessory, and who says you can’t go back to the future?
Looking for a good meal for chilly evenings following long days on the water? Something that’s quick to throw together, with a bold flavor and warm after-glow? Then Tamia has a suggestion: Dip into a varied and versatile catalog of spicy dishes from South Asia, many of which are now available in an easy-to-transport, easy-to-prepare form. So … What’s stopping you? Curry on camping!
Curry on Camping!
by Tamia Nelson | May 16, 2017
The New Model Climate is making snow a rare treat in much of Canoe Country, even in winter, but things used to be very different. One August many years ago found Farwell and me on a long, narrow lake in central Québec, struggling to make headway against half a gale of wind. This was bad enough in itself, but the wind was driving a wintry mix of snow and sleet before it, and our travelworn foul-weather gear was proving unequal to the challenge. By day’s end we were tired, wet, and cold.
Mugs of sweetened tea helped to thaw our fingers as our supper — canned beef stew — simmered on the stove. The stew wasn’t gourmet fare, but it was quick to heat and easy to prepare. I knew it would both warm us and fill us up. That was enough.
Or so we thought. But then one of our companions poked his head under the tarp. He and his wife weren’t the “tinned stew” sort. They dined every night on home-prepared, home-dehydrated meals, many of which could have been described, without exaggeration, as haute cuisine. (They’d even brought a couple of splits of champaign along for special occasions.) Our friend looked at the bubbling pot. He sniffed the air, heavy with the cloying and somewhat metallic odor of Dinty Moore’s best. His nose wrinkled expressively, but he said nothing at first, and his silence was eloquent. Then he started fishing around in the pockets of his Gore-Tex jacket till he’d found what he was looking for: a 35 mm film canister with a yellow top. “Take this,” he said suddenly. “Stir it into that…” Here he paused, searching for the right words. “Er… Stuff. It might make it…” Another thoughtful pause. “Well, you know, edible.” His tone suggested doubt and hope in equal measure.
I was too tired to be offended by our friend’s less than generous critique of my cuisine. I took the proffered film canister from his hand and opened it. The aroma was as pungent as it was powerful, and my quizzical expression elicited the briefest of descriptions — a single word:
I was impressed, to say the least. The thought of bringing a taste of India into the wilds of Québec struck me as the height of sophistication. (As you’ve probably guessed, at the time in question my backcountry menu was still stuck at the utility end of the scale.) But strictly speaking, and with the wisdom of hindsight, I now know that our foodie friend’s concise description was a little off the mark. The film can contained curry powder (a highly variable blend of spices), not curry (one of many spicy dishes originating in South Asia). Such taxonomic niceties meant little to me back then, however. And our friend was right about one thing: His curry powder certainly did improve the stew. It still wasn’t gourmet fare, but it was a lot more palatable than it would have been without the addition of the potent spices. Then and there I made a mental note to add curry powder to my master food list.
But I never considered adding curry — as distinct from curry powder — to my camping menu. Until the last few months, that is. The inspiration came during one of Farwell’s post-eye-op convalescent periods. For some years he’s been steering his course through life’s many obstacles with what he liked to call “sonar,” i.e., the echoes from the oaths and imprecations following his frequent collisions with doors, walls, and hard furniture. But now he’s relearning the art of navigating by eye, and in furtherance of that end, he’d accompanied me on my weekly food-shopping trip. These excursions are necessarily rather protracted affairs, and it was already late in the morning. The day was wet and chill, and we were both looking forward to lunch, but there were still boxes to tick on my shopping list. So I hurried off in search of basmati rice, leaving Farwell standing next to the display labeled “Asian Foods.” He was still there when I returned, intently examining packages of Super Kohinoor “Heat & Eat” curries. (Seeing him reading the minuscule print was something of a novelty. Not so very long ago, he’d been hard pressed to interpret 48-point fonts with his nose only six inches from his computer’s display — even with the help of two nested pairs of reading glasses.)
Anyway, Farwell acknowledged my return by shoving the package he’d been examining into the cart. It was quickly followed by three more. He offered no explanation, but I guessed that his sudden enthusiasm for curry was a product of the chill weather and recent exposure to a television dramatisation of one of Christie’s “Miss Marple” novels, in which a somewhat doddery old vicar wanders into an Indian restaurant on a chilly night and spends a pleasant evening over a curry while conversing with the restaurant’s owner. (Television has never played a big role on our lives, but now that Farwell can once again see what’s happening on the screen, he occasionally revisits an old favorite.)
Whatever the reason, the Super Kohinoor curries ended up on our pantry shelves, and one of them did indeed find its way to our table that lunchtime. It was a good choice, too, since…
A Curry is Just the Thing for a Raw Day
Following a suggestion on several Super Kohinoor packages, I’d picked up several rounds of ready-made naan bread at the store, and once we were back home I steamed some basmati rice while warming the naan in the oven. Farwell selected one of the curries — dal tadka (yellow lentil curry), as it happened — and removed the heavy plastic pouch from its cardboard sleeve. The cooking instructions on the package couldn’t have been simpler: Immerse in boiling water for a few minutes. The hour was late. We were hungry. So the bag went into the water, and as soon as the rice was done and the dal tadka had been divided between us, we each buttered a half-round of naan bread. Our lunch was ready.
I have to confess that, on first acquaintance, I found the curry rather too hot for my taste — according to a sticker on the package, the dal tadka is assigned a “medium” spice level — but it was certainly flavorful, and the rice tempered the heat somewhat. I soon adjusted my thermostat. The naan bread also went down a treat. All in all, it was a most satisfactory quick meal, and it certainly took the chill off the day.
Of course, when getting such a meal together involves little more than placing a pouch in boiling water, it’s not hard to see that…
Curry Has a Place in Paddlers’ Food Bags
There are four Super Kohinoor Heat & Eat curries available in my local HyperMart, and we’ve tried them all. We like the dal tadka best, but mutter paneer has more substance and less heat:
The package copy promises “tender garden peas tossed with Indian cottage cheese cooked in a curry of mild spices,” but I found that those tender peas had been reduced to mush in processing, so in the interest of improving the texture and presentation, I added about ¼ cup of frozen peas to the dish. (How did I get them into the sealed bag? Read on. All will be revealed. In any event, the extra peas weren’t essential.) And if you’re wondering about the cuboid lumps in the photo, they’re the cottage cheese. It looks nothing like the cottage cheese you’ll find in your HyperMart’s dairy case — unless your local HyperMart is in Mumbai — and it doesn’t taste anything like it, either, but the chewy cubes have a very pleasant flavor.
A second mildly spicy Super Kohinoor curry is Peshawari dal makhani, described as “whole black lentils and red kidney beans cooked in a creamy sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger and other herbs.” It’s not bad at all, with a texture closer to bisque than stew.
And then there’s Mumbai pav bhaji:
The copywriters pulled out all the stops with this one. It’s apparently “a Mumbai specialty made of fresh vegetables, potatoes, and aromatic spices.” That’s all well and good, but first-time buyers should be warned that it’s at least as hot as the dal tadka. The good news? It’s also every bit as warming on a chilly day.
That’s the last of the Super Kohinoor curries on offer in my local HyperMart. If you live in or near a major city, you’ll likely have much more to choose from. A word to the wise is probably in order at this point, however. Salt and saturated fat levels in packaged meals can be high, and the Super Kohinoor curries are no exception. The upshot? If salt or fat is a worry, you’ll want to pay close attention to the nutrition labeling. Paddlers who eschew meat can breathe a sight of relief, though. All the Super Kohinoor curries that we’ve tested are “100% Vegetarian.”
Now a word about preparation: The boil-in-the-bag approach is about as simple as any type of cooking can be, but I’m not a fan. For one thing, I don’t like heating food in plastic. (Don’t get me wrong. There’s no reason to think that the plastic used in the Super Kohinoor curries poses any sort of health risk. I just don’t like cooking in plastic. Any plastic. I’ve even retired my one remaining Teflon-coated pan.) It’s also surprisingly difficult to apportion servings equitably when you’re pouring from a plastic bag. If two people share a curry — the package claims that it serves three, but this is a polite fiction, at least for active paddlers — one of the diners is likely to get the “soup” while the other gets all the solids. So I’ve learned to ignore the instructions and empty the contents of the pouch into a pot. I then bring the curry to a simmer on the stove and ladle out the portions. It’s not as easy as dunking the intact bag in boiling water, I admit, and I end up with a dirty pot, but the small inconvenience is worth it.
The decant-and-heat approach also allows you to add extra ingredients, something you’ll probably want to do if you’re relying on a curry as the mainstay of a camp meal. Assuming that you split a package with your partner, the calorie count of the curries that I’ve sampled ranges from only 140 (dal tadka) to 265 (Mumbai pav bhaji). If you’ve just paddled 15 miles into a headwind, you’ll need more than that. At a minimum, I recommend a generous serving of rice and a good-sized wedge of flatbread. Naan is a natural choice. A leavened flatbread from South Asia, naan can hold its own in a pack for at least a week, so it’s a good choice for shorter trips when you don’t want to go to the trouble of baking bread in camp.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading off to what I like to think of as my “test kitchen.” Inspired by Super Kohinoor, I’m cooking up a DIY squash and lentil curry. I’ll serve it with rice, homemade yogurt, and naan. And if it doesn’t disappoint, I’ll probably make it the next time I spend a chill, mizzly day in camp.
Curry isn’t to everyone’s taste, but if you’re looking for a quick, hot meal that warms you two ways, you could do a lot worse than going for a curry. And judging from our experience, the Super Kohinoor line is a good place to start.
No, this isn’t what you’re thinking. But “pole dancing” — using a pole rather than a paddle to dance through shallow rock gardens and climb rivers — is well on its way to becoming a lost art. There are still a few aficionados keeping the flame alive, though, and this week one of them is helping Tamia get the word out.
A Pole-Dancing Primer
by Tamia Nelson | May 23, 2017
Once upon a time, when Farwell and I owned two tandem canoes, we occasionally abandoned paddle for pole. We first practiced tandem pole dancing on a lively little trout stream with a wonderfully clean, cobbly bottom. It was just steep enough to provide a challenge when working upriver, and it had just enough easy (Class I-II) rapids to test our ability to check and pivot our big Tripper when running with the current. In short, it offered a perfect succession of aquatic “nursery slopes.” We were pretty clumsy at first — novice pole dancers must be prepared to swim — but by summer’s end, we’d mastered most of the basic moves, and we never tired of seeing the astonished looks on drifting tubers’ faces when they rounded a bend and saw us making our way toward them, dancing upstream from eddy to eddy with (apparently) effortless ease. This was before the stand-up paddleboard had become a common sight on American waterways, of course. Few people had ever encountered a canoeist standing in her boat in midstream, let alone seen one wielding a 12-foot-long pole while climbing the river or picking her way through a rock-garden maze.
So impressed were we with the versatility and utility of poling after our summerlong apprenticeship that we purchased a couple of breakdown aluminum poles to use on wilderness trips. And they gave good service for many years, on the water and off (where they doubled as ridge poles for our tarps). This approach to backcountry travel was something of a novelty in the ’80s and ’90s. Then, as now, most wilderness jaunts were one-way, go-with-the-flow affairs, requiring car shuttles or charter fly-ins. But there was, and is, ample precedent for two-way travel on wild waters. After all, poling was part of the syllabus for any working waterman in the days when canoes and flatboats still carried commercial cargos. If you’re interested, you’ll find an old photo in Eric W. Morse’s Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada that shows two heavily loaded canoes (one of them a birchbark) poling up rapids on the Abitibi River. Even as late as the 1920s, R. M. Patterson made good use of a pole in his Nahanni River explorations.
That said, Farwell and I no longer own a tandem canoe, and our little pack boats and inflatables are too short and squirrelly to make good poling platforms. To be sure, it is possible to pole a pack canoe or kayak upriver from a seated position, using two short poles and adapting the cross-country skier’s double-poling technique to the watery medium. But we’ve never found this expedient to be very efficient, and it can prove exhausting. The upshot? Poling has pretty much dropped out of our personal paddling lexicon.
Which is why I was delighted when reader Stephen Coutts took the time to send me an e-mail on the subject, writing in response to an earlier In the Same Boat column. This required considerable determination on his part, since Paddling.com’s web developer removed the bylines and e-mail addresses from nearly 900 of our articles, including the one that caught Stephen’s eye. Our bylines are now back — well, I think they’re back, anyway; I haven’t checked all 900 columns — but many (most?) of the contact links that made it easy for readers to reach us in the past are still among the missing. Nonetheless, Stephen went to the trouble to ferret out my e-mail address, and I’m very glad he did, not least because we both share an interest in…
Keeping the Art of Poling Alive
Here’s the bit in my earlier column that moved Stephen to write to me:
We all thrill to the siren song of faraway places with strange-sounding names. But nowadays, those faraway places are as like as not to be thronged with people desperately searching for solitude. Want something different? Then put the guidebooks back on the shelf and follow your heart. Unless you live in a desert — and maybe even if you do — there are secret waters not far from your home. Search them out and make them yours.
And here’s what Stephen had to say:
I have a secret to share about creating your own secret waters. I am a dedicated poler. I am in southern Ontario, and … there are very, VERY few of us. A couple of rivers run through my city, but except for the spring flood times they are mostly unpaddleable. They are, however, very pole-friendly. I have many miles of river all to myself for most of the year. The rivers aren’t a secret. Poling is the secret skill. I am doing what I can to enlighten the unwitting sit-downers, but it is not [their] tradition, and so I have the water all to myself, even through the heart of town.
Stephen knows whereof he speaks. And he’s doing what he can to keep this vital legacy of the age of working watermen alive. I certainly hope he succeeds. I’ve long been struck by the way that canoeists and kayakers pick and choose among traditions. Some things — the canoe itself, along with beavertail paddles, packbaskets, and Duluth packs — have been lovingly retained. I suspect this is due to their historic associations. But other traditions, no less imbued with sepia-tinted romance — the pole, for example, as well as the arts of tracking and lining — have been cast aside. I put this seeming contradiction down to our unwillingness to see our rivers as two-way highways. If we contemplate upriver travel at all, we expect a kicker to do the work for us. But most paddlers never even think of going against the flow. This, I suspect, is explained by our till-death-do-us-part embrace of the automobile. Why sweat to climb a river when you can drift down “for free” and then get a climate-conditioned ride back to your put-in? And why bother to master an art that exists — in part, at any rate — to facilitate upriver travel?
Well, Stephen has a simple answer to these questions: To coax us sit-down boaters out of our seats and furnish us with an elegant tool for traversing streams too shallow and obstructed for the paddle — a tool which also makes two-way travel as easy as it can be made. Why is this a good thing? Because it unlocks the myriad secret waters to be found in unlikely places, many of them right on our own doorsteps. With pole in hand, the erstwhile paddler’s world suddenly becomes much larger and more various.
And if that’s not enough for you, there’s one more inducement to consider: Pole dancing is a delight in its own right. It melds pleasure with utility, and whole-body exercise with the pride of accomplishment that comes from learning a new skill, while simultaneously freeing the pole dancer from dependence on a motor. Independence. That’s the key, isn’t it? It’s a word freighted with emotion, and we say we value it above just about everything else. Yet when push comes to shove, as it often does on moving water, what do we do? More often than not, we go with the flow. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The day you master the art of pole dancing can be your independence day.
And so, my question to you, dear reader, is this: It’s May. The rushing waters are playing their timeless tune again. Shall we dance?
The canoe and the automobile have become inseparable partners. Almost all paddling trips start and end with a drive, and much time is spent shuttling cars back and forth between put-in and take-out. That’s all well and good if you’ve got a couple of cars at your disposal. But what can one-car families and solo boaters do? Tamia offered her answer to the problem in a recent article, but this week, in the 67th edition of In the Same Boat‘s quarterly letters column, readers share their own secrets of the solo shuttle.
Our Readers Write — The Solo Shuttle
Think of the sound of one hand clapping. Stumped? OK. Here’s an easier one: Think of a scheme for one-car shuttling. Hmm … That really wasn’t any easier, was it? But it can be done. And Tamia describe her favorite approach in a recent column called, appropriately enough, “Secret of the Solo Shuttle.” This wasn’t the last word on the subject, however. Far from it. Her readers had a lot to add, and today we’re passing their ideas along. So, without further ado, here’s…
The Sixty-Seventh Edition of “Our Readers Write”
A heads-up first, though: Long-time readers will find that this doesn’t look much like previous editions. We’ve had to work within the strictures imposed by the new site’s stylesheet, and while we hope you’ll be able to make sense of what follows, there’s certainly room for improvement. If you’ve any ideas for polishing the presentation, therefore, be sure to let us know. We played no part in designing Paddling.com, nor do we have any role in site administration, but we’ll see to it that any suggestions for making things better get to the right people.
And now to business. In her earlier article, Tamia wrote:
[T]oday’s recreational paddlers are no more eager to “climb the river” at the end of a trip than downhill skiers would be to sidestep and herringbone back up the mountain after each run. Of course, ski areas have long since done away with any need for such retrograde exertions. But there are few T-bars or chairlifts on rivers, so paddlers wanting an easy way back to the put-in must turn instead to that beast of all burdens: the family car.
No easy way back to the put-in? As it happens,…
Buck Meyer remembers when at least one river boasted a chairlift. “At one time (the 1970’s),” he writes, “there was a chairlift servicing the Apple River, east of the Twin Cities in Wisconsin. I don’t know if the chairlift still exists, but it hauled tubers back to the start, saving lots of bus and car traffic on the roads.”
Our reply: What can we say? Only that the exception proves the rule — and that we’re surprised the idea didn’t catch on. Perhaps, as our New Model Climate turns winter into a sometime thing throughout Canoe Country, and snow becomes an increasingly rare commodity, ski areas will sell their newly redundant lifts to river outfitters. Then it will be, “Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super…Paddler!” We can’t wait.
In the meantime, though, we’re left to our own devices. For most of us, that means spotting a car at each end of the day’s run, though a few hardy souls substitute a bicycle for one of the cars. This entails a certain amount of risk, however. An unattended bicycle is an invitation to thieves, after all, and though a lock is one way of addressing the problem, not all locks are up to the job. In her earlier column, Tamia pooh-poohed the utility of the gold-standard U-lock at forest parking areas. One reader has a further suggestion:
Jonathan Beers uses not one lock, but two. “A U-lock plus a cable works well for me,” Jonathan observes, “although I’ve always had small trees, road signs, guardrails at bridges, etc., to lock to. Back when I had a 30-year-old Bianchi, I often just used a good cable. Bonus: You can lock your boat(s) with a cable while biking.”
Our reply: Jonathan’s points are all well taken. We, too, use two locks in many places, an idea that — as Jonathan noted elsewhere in his e-mail — was endorsed by the late and much lamented cycling guru Sheldon Brown.
But what about boats? After all, as Jonathan also suggested, bikes aren’t uniquely vulnerable. Unattended boats are also prized by thieves, and such opportunistic snappers-up of unconsidered valuables can spoil any canoeist’s or kayaker’s day. Which is why…
Steve Mineck has been slow to adopt the bicycle as a shuttle vehicle. He writes: “I like the idea of a bike shuttle but haven’t done so yet. I think you should say something about the boat that you will have to leave behind. Lock to a tree, hide, whatever. Probably worth way more than that beater bike.”
Our reply: Steve’s e-mail draws attention to a crucial question — just how does a solo boater protect his unattended boat from theft or vandalism? And Steve’s answers are as good as any we’ve heard: Conceal it from view, lock it to something substantial, and then hope for the best. There are no guarantees, however, and it’s a subject we’ll be returning to in a future column. In the meantime, if you have a better idea, just drop us a line. We’ll pass it on.
Then again, the bicycle isn’t the only possible alternative to the automobile in planning a shuttle. There are other forms of two-wheeled transport, and …
Ken Himmel says a motorcycle does the job for him. “Years ago,” Ken writes, “I effected a similar solution to a two-car shuttle when canoeing in the Texas Hill Country with my brother. He had a long bed full-sized Chevy pickup, and I loaded my Honda XL175 street-legal motorcycle in the back of his truck for the trip down from Dallas. We stashed the bike at the take-out, chained and locked securely, and I easily rode back to the put-in point where I could load the lightweight bike into the truck with a ramp by myself. The big advantage of this was being able to legally, quickly, and safely ride on public roads.”
Our reply: There’s no arguing with success. And while you don’t get as much exercise on a motorcycle as you would on a bike, a tired boater will find that a motorcycle makes the return trip both easier and faster. That’s mighty welcome after a long, hard day on the water.
You say that you don’t own a motorcycle? Or maybe you just prefer making the wheels go round with your muscles rather than fossilized sunlight. If so, another reader has some good advice for you:
Ernie Grillo likes bikes, but he’s taking no chances. He writes: “I have [shuttled by bike] many times, but I never leave my bike at a put-in or take-out. I take it with me. A bike is easy for me to put in my canoe, and most bikes have quick-release wheels which make them more compactable. My standard-size bike works well, but if I needed to do this more often, I would invest in a folding bike.
“My other option is hitch-hiking. I have never had to wait more than 10 to 15 minutes for a ride. When people see you hitching at a river take-out or put-in, they know what you are doing and are more comfortable picking you up.”
Our reply: Tamia mentioned the “take-along” option in her earlier column, but Ernie’s e-mail puts flesh on the bones of the idea, so to speak. And if space is tight in your boat, folding bikes are definitely worth looking at. They’re already quite popular with cruising sailors, as it happens. Er … That sentence is open to misinterpretation. So let’s recast it. How about, “They’re popular with people who own biggish sailboats and sail them to far-distant ports”? That’s better, isn’t it? Anyway, folders have now reached such a high level of sophistication and performance that they’re used by many touring cyclists. We think they’d make equally good choices for paddlers who want a carry-on bike.
As for hitchhiking … It’s been years since either one of us has thumbed a ride, and neither of us can remember when we last saw a paddler with her thumb out looking for a lift. But this may have something to do with the frequent traffic checkpoints on our local roads. Northern New York has long been a smuggler’s paradise, and that proud tradition continues unbroken to this day. During the Prohibition era, the traffickers’ principal commodity was booze. Today, the unsanctioned cross-border trade has diversified to encompass an eclectic mix of people, untaxed cigarettes, illicit drugs, and illegal weapons, with the unsurprising result that Border Patrol road checks are now so common that we carry our passports with us whenever we leave the house. We find this irksome, and we’re not alone. Would-be hitchhikers probably find the prospect of being stopped and questioned just as off-putting as we do. Still, we’re sure that many canoeists and kayakers live in places where the hand of the state rests less heavily on ordinary citizens. It sounds to us as if Ernie does, for instance. Lucky him!
Now here’s another solution to solo boaters’ shuttle problems, and though it won’t work everywhere, it’s certainly ingenious:
Marty Lavine goes “Uber” the top. “I’ve solved the solo shuttle problem another way,” Marty writes. “Uber! I drop my boat at the put-in, drive to the take-out, and then Uber back to the put-in with my gear in hand. This may not work in a remote rural area, but otherwise it’s a fantastic way to shuttle. And it’s not just for solo trips. I use Uber to shuttle even when I organize group floats. If we have more than six people to shuttle, I just need another person with the Uber app so we can call a second car.”
Our reply: Now why didn’t we think of that? Wait! We know the answer. Uber hasn’t made it to northern New York yet. This may soon change, though. And when it does, it will certainly change the way paddlers organize their shuttles.
But what about those paddlers among us who eschew modern contrivances like smartphones and prefer to rely entirely on their own resources? Well, they can follow this reader’s lead:
Dan Turner paddles in the wake of Lewis and Clark. “What about an article for the Class I and Class II river paddlers who like to paddle upstream?” he asks. “It may present a challenge to those who haven’t tried it, just as [your] biking article did. I find it quite a good workout, a good challenge, and a no-worry/no-shuttle alternative when the water level is right. We don’t always have to go 15 miles to enjoy the day. Sometimes just paddling a mile or two (or less) upstream, a little fishing or photography, etc., and a picnic lunch can be quite enjoyable. Like the bike shuttle, it sure isn’t for everyone, but it has been good for me, and it didn’t stop Lewis and Clark’s expedition did it?
“I almost always go upstream first so I can enjoy the paddle/float downstream at the end of the trip. It is much nicer getting the upstream part out of the way first when I’m fresh.
“I took a church group in canoes and kayaks downstream first one time[, however] — only a couple of miles — and then back up. This was kids and adults in tandems and singles. I had to help them a couple of times in the riffles coming upstream, but all smiles and no complaints. And no shuttle. How sweet!”
Our reply: Dan is a man after our own hearts. And as luck would have it, just as Dan’s letter arrived in the In the Same Boat mailbag, Tamia was finishing the first drafts of two articles about going against the flow. Both were published earlier this month. (See “Going Against the Flow” and “Becoming a Gamefish.”)
Finally, with this edition of “Our Readers Write” drawing to a close, let’s get back on our bikes for the ride to the take-out, in the company of…
George Simmons, who finds that rail-trails near waterways offer the best of both worlds. “Most of my paddling these days is solo,” he writes. “The guys I used to paddle with are now gone, as in deceased. However, I use the combination of greenways and blueways for my paddling adventures.
“A few years back, I would leave my bike downstream somewhere, canoe to it, then hop on the bike and ride back upstream along the small, winding country roads that you described. However, times have changed, and I think the roads have become too dangerous because of ‘distracted’ drivers. Likewise, I’m always carrying my paddles, my seabag, and my valuables bag, and the bicycle is not very maneuverable under the best of conditions — much less on a narrow road, with no shoulder, no escape route, and a distracted driver bearing down on you.
“So I find the rail-to-trail areas just delightful. By the time one sets up the portage, paddles a few miles, bikes back to the truck (on a safe bicycle trail), then drives back downstream to pick up the canoe, a very pleasant day has passed. And, yes, you are correct: One needs to think about a safe, secure rack [to lock up] the bike, as well as [securing] the canoe.”
Our reply: Right on! Paddle and pedal really do work well together. And since George gets the last word, we’ll leave you with a photo of his “pack pony,” fully loaded and ready for the trail. Note the heavy-duty racks bolted to his bike’s frame and the breakdown double-bladed paddle, bagged up and good to go. Can you tell that we’re jealous? We are.
There you have it. The 67th edition of In the Same Boat‘s quarterly column devoted to reader mail. Our thanks go out to all the folks who’ve contributed insights, tips, and encouragement over the years. And if you have something to add, don’t be shy. Send us an e-mail. It’s every reader’s right, after all.
He once wrote regularly for Paddling.net. But then he stopped. Now he’s back. He’s Farwell Forrest, and he’s the other half of In the Same Boat. Think of him as Quixote to Tamia’s Sancho Panza, if you want. Sancho did all the work and had all the brains. Quixote chased dreams and picked fights with windmills. The windmills won. But enough of that. There’s a squall on the horizon. It’s no bigger than a man’s hand right now, but the red flags are up, and the wind is starting to back. Better screw down the hatch covers. It could be a wild ride.
He’s Baaack! Or, Farwell Returns
by Farwell Forrest | June 6, 2017
It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Then again, perhaps there are no readers of this column left who can remember when I last wrote an article for Paddling.net, as it then was. But for better or worse, I’m back at the keyboard again. Tamia’s taking a well-earned break, and I’ll be filling in for her. For how long? I don’t know. Tamia isn’t saying. She’s working on a couple of book projects, and that looks like taking many months. Moreover, In the Same Boat‘s future is up in the air, a rather uncomfortable place for any aquatic creature. As everyone who’s visited this website’s forums knows, the transition from Paddling.net to Paddling.com has been a bumpy one. A lot of familiar names have moved on. Brent, one of the Paddling.net’s founding fathers (and the guy who entered Tamia and me onto the ship’s books, so to speak), stepped ashore early last year. Now Kevin, the tireless “content Sherpa” — a thankless job, I’m afraid, and one we did very little to make easier — has joined him. And many long-time readers of this column seem to have jumped ship, as well. So In the Same Boat may soon have no choice but to up anchor and seek another mooring. Tempora mutantur, and all that. Nothing lasts forever.
But until that day comes, it’s up to me to fill the space. I’ll do my best, but don’t expect me to channel Tamia. I don’t have her talent. I’m an indifferent photographer, I neither paint nor draw, and my interest in food begins and ends with eating. But I enjoy spending time on the water. Paddling, rowing, sailing … It’s all the same to me. Though I draw the line, somewhat irrationally, at paddling while standing — at least as an end in itself. When I stand up in a canoe, I want a pole in my hand, not a paddle, which means that the latest evolution in paddlesport has passed me by. I’ll happily accept an invitation to dine at the water’s edge, but I doubt I’ll ever SUP.
My bottom line, then? When I’m in a small boat, I like to keep my bottom on a seat. Or if the boat happens to be a small sailing dinghy and the breeze is freshening, on the windward gunwale. So why, if I don’t feel the need to follow the lead of the industry’s Mad Women and Madder Men in moving restlessly from one Big New Thing to the next, even Bigger, Big New Thing, do I paddle? I’m glad you asked. I paddle to…wait for it…to go somewhere — somewhere I can’t get to as easily (or as pleasurably) dry-shod.
This may require some explanation. Paddling is never the easiest way to go somewhere by water, is it? You can travel much farther, in much less time, by harnessing fossil sunlight. That’s the people’s choice, after all. And it’s not hard to see why. With a hundred horsepower at their fingertips, the gasoline alley kids not only get to wherever they’re going without having to break a sweat, they also get to shatter the stillness of wild waters with the roar, whine, and burble of their exhausts. There aren’t very many places left where silence reigns supreme. Soon there won’t be any. And some people will doubtlessly think this a very good thing. Many of us now feel vaguely uneasy when we hear only the ripple of wavelets and the cry of distant loons. It reminds us that we humans are recent recruits to the cast of planet earth, with the length of our engagement yet to be decided. So the throaty rumble of a ‘rude offers welcome reassurance. It’s the sound of power, affirming our species’ place as Number One in nature’s pecking order, on the job and in control, now and forever. You could call it the aural equivalent of the graffiti left by gangs to mark their turf.
Of course, being Number One means you can do what you want. And if what you want to do is ride your Kamikaze WaveBanger back and forth along the same half-mile stretch of shoreline for a week, having loads of good, clean fun in the process, not to mention winning the eternal gratitude of the chamber of commerce every time you gas up, so much the better. There’s a bonus, too: With each trip up and down the lake, you pump a little more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, hastening the day when all of Canoe Country will enjoy endless summer, and millions of landlocked North Americans on both coasts will find themselves waterfront property owners for the first time in their lives — without any of the inconvenience and expense of moving. In fact, this is already happening in some places, and the principle beneficiaries often turn out to be the folks living in the poorer sections of town, where seawalls and pumps are unaffordable luxuries. Not to worry, though. They’re on the waterfront now, or they soon will be. It’s like the market gurus say: A rising tide raises all boats. That’s got to be good, right?
Er … Well … Maybe not. After all, Pan, the ancient god of nature, isn’t really the kindly, benevolent spirit depicted in The Wind in the Willows. And he hasn’t lost his ability to inspire panic. Anyone who’s ever ridden out a hurricane, watched a tornado skip gaily through a rural hamlet, or seen a wind-driven wildfire reduce a forest to charcoal and ash will readily understand that tampering with the climate may not be the smartest thing our species has done. In the years since the Little Ice Age came to an end, back in the mid-19th century, Canoe Country has enjoyed “Goldilocks weather.” Warm summers, but not too warm. Cold winters, but not too cold. And rain and snow in due proportion. That’s been the case in most years, at any rate. Orderly, well-mannered seasons have trouped merrily along, one by one, in stately procession. But it seems we weren’t happy with that. It was, you know, boring. So we made a collective decision to give the global thermostat an upward twist and see what would happen. And now we will.
The show must go on, of course. There’s no canceling the performance, and attendance is mandatory. Death’s the only way to miss the last act. Nor can any of us pretend we haven’t been told how the story ends. Like Robert Frost (and most professional atmospheric scientists), I hold with those who favor fire. Or at least a slow bake, with the small but intriguing possibility that the curtain will come down as the “Venus scenario” plays out onstage and earth’s oceans boil away. Not even Wagner could top that.
Still, some of us, some few of us, stubbornly insist on behaving as if we can change the script, even at this late stage. Call it folly, if you wish. For that is what it is. But having seen early in my life what our species can accomplish in the way of calculated destruction, I now feel duty bound to walk lightly on the earth. I take pleasure in cleaving a clean and quiet wake though the water, too. So when the day comes that my arms are no longer equal to the task, I won’t rush out to buy a jetski, I’ll just write finis to the aquatic chapter in my life’s story. And if I won’t turn to a motor to augment my failing strength then, why would I want to do so now, when I can still get around under my own power? Daniel Behrman once observed how automobile culture has made premature cripples of us all: A car, he presciently observed, is “really nothing but a wheelchair.…Everybody [today] is a paraplegic, we have superpower for infrapeople.” His words will grate on modern ears and inflame contemporary sensibilities, I suppose, but they ring true. I did a spell in a wheelchair once, back in the day. I can remember how good it felt to stand on my own two feet again, and how wonderful it was to take the first tottery steps away from that damned chair. I’ve no wish to settle back into it even one minute before my time. So I’ll continue to pursue pleasure the no-octane way.
Which is why, for me, the easiest and best way to travel to, from, and on the water necessarily involves sweat, toil, and (sometimes) tears. But not blood. Not yet, at any rate. And not gasoline. Ever. Will my quixotic attitude make a difference? To the future of planet earth, no. Not a bit of difference. But to me, yes. All the difference in the world. I’ll just have to be satisfied with that.
Next week: A second look at Daniel Behrman. What does the “Man Who Loved Bicycles” have to say that might interest canoeists and kayakers? You’ll learn the answer here. Unless In the Same Boat sinks with all hands betweentimes, that is. Or something more interesting engages my attention. We shall see.
Can a book about bicycling have anything to say to canoeists and kayakers? It can — and more than you might think. So this week Farwell returns to The Man Who Loved Bicycles to see what he can find. And you’re invited to come along for the ride.
Paddlers’ Pearls from the Man Who Loved Bicycles
by Farwell Forrest | June 13, 2017
Toward the end of last week’s rather rambling column, I quoted a short excerpt from Daniel Behrman’s The Man Who Loved Bicycles, and this week I’m going to dip a few more cups from that well. What can a cyclist possibly have to say that might interest canoeists, you ask? Quite a lot, I reply. Read on.
But first, a few words about, er … words. Ever since Tamia and I first started writing for what was then Paddling.net, we’ve used “paddling” as the portmanteau word for all forms of water recreation in which the paddle is the principal instrument of propulsion. In the early days of In the Same Boat, “paddling” therefore encompassed both “canoeing” and “kayaking.” Later, it widened its embrace to include SOTs (SOTting?) and SUPs (SUPping, surely) — though we’ve had little or nothing to say about the last, for the simple reason that neither of us has ever SUPped. Or is ever likely to, for that matter.
Be that as it may, I’ve never been altogether happy with our choice of portmanteau label. This has nothing to do with “paddling” per se, and Paddling.com is the perfect name for this site — instantly recognizable, easy to remember, and comprehensive. It’s just that, before Paddling.net had become an established Internet presence, we got occasional e‑mails from folks expressing disappointment that the site was not as advertised. It seems they were looking for an online counterpart to what the Brits call “spanking mags.” It’s been years since we got such an e‑mail, but I’m still reminded of Schoolgirl Capers — readers of Mortimer’s Rumpole stories will understand the connection — whenever I stumble across the word “paddling” in any of our columns. And since I’m doing the writing here, I’m going to jettison it and substitute “canoeing” — in its original, inclusive sense, viz., “to paddle or propel a canoe,” where “canoe,” too, is used inclusively, as suggested by the measured cadences of this definition from the venerable Oxford English Dictionary:
A small light sort of boat or skiff propelled by paddling, used chiefly for recreation in Europe, North America, etc.
The ordinary canoe is made of thin board, galvanized iron, caoutchouc, paper, etc., and like the kayak of the Eskimoes [sic] is covered in, except the small space occupied by the canoeist; it is propelled by a paddle having a blade at each end; but so-called ‘Indian’ or ‘Canadian canoes’, which are open, and hold several persons, are also in use as pleasure-boats, and are propelled by a single-bladed paddle.
The advantages of adopting “canoeing” as my portmanteau word for all varieties of paddlesport are manifold. It should save space (no more “canoeists and kayakers”) and time (my time, that is; I’m a clumsy typist), as well as adding a touch of borrowed Old World elegance to my rather shapeless Amerish prose. That, at least, is my fond hope.
Back to business, now. What does Behrman, the “Man Who Loved Bicycles,” have to say to canoeists? Well, to begin with, he points out the not-so-hidden messages with which the Mad Men mesmerize the masses into pursuing powersport at any price. Here, for example, is his take on the iconography of the sport car, …
that contradiction in terms, the overhead-cammed, mid-engined, wide-tired wheelchair for the dead tired. … The sport car is nothing but plastic surgery[,] … a four-wheeled phallus, … the ultimate prosthesis.
He is, of course, speaking of cars, but with just a few changes (drop the wheels, add a couple of ‘rudes), he could have been describing the latest offerings from Walleye Warrior or Waterski Warehouse. Nor did he confine himself to questions of power and potency. Behrman addressed issues of substance, as well:
Run an automobile on steam, electricity, sunshine, or the morning dew, it’ll still get you. Put on bumpers of eiderdown, bring back the man on horseback waving a red flag ahead of every motorcar…, the automobile will still be lethal. … [Man the hunter] could run a horse into the ground, he could plow a hundred acres, take a reef off Cape Horn, shovel four tons of coal in a single shift, he could do all of that and more. Not any more. Now he sits and twitches a finger and a toe. Yet his genes and his metabolism have not changed during the nanosecond of his biological history that has seen him reduced to a lump of helpless cushioned cosseted flesh.
I think of this passage whenever I watch a parade of pontoon boats endlessly circling a postage-stamp-sized lake at little more than a walking pace, the sultry summer air heavy with the stench of their exhaust. These are the plodding Clydesdales of powercraft, but they do as much damage — to both their human ballast and the larger, living world — as the myriad stinging flies (aka jetskis) that dart and weave around them. (Always something of a contrarian, I refuse to label those things “personal watercraft.” I know a personal watercraft when I see one, and it looks nothing like a Kamikaze Cockchafer or a Sea-Poo Scarab. It looks like a canoe.)
OK. It’s obvious from the last quoted excerpt that when Behrman wrote The Man Who Loved Bicycles, he was reveling in the unaccustomed role of polemicist — a happy warrior, tilting at windmills and delighting in the freedom to do so. You can sense his newfound joy from his abandoned use of the comma splice. Scarcely a paragraph in his book lacks at least one example. The words spill out in a fluid stream of consciousness, with little apparent regard for their appearance when frozen in type. This is perfectly understandable. Behrman spent much of his working life churning out reports for UNESCO — staid white papers that, quite probably, no one besides himself ever read from beginning to end. Those were duty dances with a dowager aunt. The Man Who Loved Bicycles was a tango with his true love. It shows.
But I digress. The two quotes from Behrman’s book that I’ve given so far touch on the downsides of motorsport, and while they speak to the concerns of at least some canoeists, they don’t do so directly. Does Behrman ever have anything to say to us that doesn’t require a helpful gloss? Well, yes, he does. Like this advice, for instance:
Follow the rivers, follow the water. … To know the continent, you must ride the rivers into its innermost fastnesses.
Short and sweet, and though Behrman was, as always, speaking to (and of) cyclists, his words might just as well have been addressed to canoeists. Of course, there are as many reasons for canoeing as there are canoeists. Some of us turn to the canoe for exercise. Others see it only as a fishing platform, while still others paddle solely for fame and (occasionally) fortune. But for a few of us — we happy few, we band of brothers — the canoe is transportation, pure and simple. It transports us from the here and now into the there and then. In other words, it carries us where we most want to go, surmounting all the barriers erected by miles and years. And in so doing, it opens the innermost fastnesses of every continent to leisurely, loving exploration. That should be enough for anyone, I’d think. It’s certainly enough for me.
Now, before I take my leave, I’ve got a favor to ask. I’ve quoted Behrman at some length in the foregoing, but there’s a lot more in The Man Who Loved Bicycles to interest both cyclists and canoeists — these are not, after all, mutually exclusive tribes. If you’d like to read it, however, you’ll have to search far and wide to find it. The book is out of print, and few libraries now hold copies. Behrman died in 1990, and my copy is a discard from a high school. I suppose they needed to make room on their shelves for the 20th copy of Hairy Snotter and the Gobbet of Ire.
No contest, right? Fantasy sells. Yet Behrman still has something to say to anyone who prefers to live in the real world, and what he has to say is more important today than ever before. Which is why I’d like to see his book back in circulation. Indeed, I’d undertake to reprint it myself, if I could find out who owns the copyright. So if you know, or if you know someone who might know, please drop me a line. Thanks!
And the subjects of next week’s column? Passion, paddling, and pasta, though not necessarily in that order.
What does it mean to say you have a passion for paddling? That’s the question Farwell sets himself this week, and you’ll find the first part of his answer below. A hint: Hope lies at the heart of the story.
A Passion for Paddling: Rediscovering Hope
by Farwell Forrest | June 20, 2017
Last week’s column included three short quotes from Daniel Behrman’s The Man Who Loved Bicycles, a book that says nothing — no, not so much as a single word — about canoeing. As the title makes abundantly clear, Behrman’s book had its genesis in his love of cycling. But this doesn’t mean Behrman has nothing to say to canoeists. His words speak volumes to anyone who takes pleasure in moving around under his own power, whether by pedal or paddle or shanks’ mare. How can this be? Simple. If you dip deeper into the book’s pages and look beyond the few excerpts that I quoted in my earlier column — good luck to you; the book is now out of print — you’ll soon discover that Behrman’s real subject isn’t bicycles. It’s passion. And that’s my subject today, too.
I can’t write this without feeling a certain chill tremor of trepidation. “Passion,” like “awesome,” has lost much of its meaning over the last half-century. The denaturing process that robbed these once-vivid words of their force and majesty closely resembles the evolution of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s presciently dystopian novel, and the result is just as Orwell forecast: The English language is now being remodeled so as to eliminate many vital distinctions of emphasis and degree. If a cupcake can be said to be awesome — as apparently it can — and if food writers can proclaim that they’re passionate about pasta without eliciting snickers of disbelief — and there are numberless examples of this — then both “awesome” and “passion” have lost their significance. Yet these are only two examples out of many. Our etiolated tongue’s utility as a means of communicating subtle shades of meaning is already sadly compromised. It’s a lot like grade inflation, in which the “gentleman’s C” has been bumped up to the “everyperson’s A” in order to avoid invidious comparisons. I suppose there are fewer hurt feelings as a result, but it’s also much harder to distinguish the outstanding student from the ones who are just getting by. This is now happening to the language, as well. Superlatives have become the only legal tender in the currency of ideas. Anything less than “awesome” simply fails to register in the consciousness of the smartphone-addicted Twitterati.
Much the same thing can be said for “passion,” and that being the case, it’s likely that any column headed “a passion for paddling” will be greeted with a dismissive shrug. We’re passionate about everything today, after all. Still, there are probably a few readers old enough to remember when no one ever thought cupcakes awesome or pasta capable of arousing passion, and it’s to this dwindling cohort of unregenerate old farts that I’m speaking today.
OK. Why would any sane person claim to have a passion for paddling? That’s passion in the now superseded sense, I hasten to add, a sense best exemplified in this definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Any kind of feeling by which the mind is powerfully affected or moved; a vehement, commanding, or overpowering emotion; … as ambition, avarice, desire, hope, fear, love, hatred, joy, grief, anger, revenge.” Of course, we can set most of these to one side. Though canoeists sometimes feel fear — Are you certain the guidebook said this was only Class IV? — canoeing seldom gives rise to avarice, hatred, anger, or a desire for revenge. But what about hope, love, and joy? Surely there are many times when canoeists are swayed by these prime movers of human action. I know I am, at any rate. So I can honestly say I have a passion for paddling. Make no mistake: I also like pasta, but my feelings for boiled noodles never rise to the level of “a vehement, commanding, or overpowering emotion.” I am very much yesterday’s man, you see.
Now, having dealt with these necessary preliminaries, let’s explore how the deceptively simple act of stirring water with a wooden (or Kevlar) blade on the end of a stick can give rise to something as powerful as passion. And to get the journey under way, I’ll look first at:
Of all the passions, this is the most fragile, and hope is certainly under siege today. When viewed objectively, the human prospect is pretty bleak, and it’s getting bleaker with every passing year. Moreover, our species now has the means — and more importantly, the apparent determination — to take much of the living world down with us when we go. Yet every time I venture out on the water, I see evidence of life’s resilience in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. And I’m reminded that, whatever the fate of my species, we are all part of something much larger and more important. That’s reason enough to rekindle a flame of hope from the embers of existential despair.
Of course, it doesn’t do to sugarcoat things. All of us are fated to die, whether we’re mayflies or men or bowhead whales. It would be a mighty crowded world if it were otherwise. Moreover, entire species are disappearing every day, each one unique and in some sense irreplaceable, though most, being wholly unknown to us, will never be missed. But life, that musical score in which all of us are but individual notes, plays on, nonetheless. Birds continue to sing their songs even as the forests are felled around them. There are chainsaws at work in a nearby woods as I write this, but the mewing of the catbird in the (endangered) ash tree outside my window is louder. And frogs trill their melodies even as their marshes are destroyed. Not long ago, just up the road, an eight-acre wetland was drained, and the resulting hole was filled with construction debris. A “wellness retreat” now serves as the wetland’s grave marker. The retreat’s ads promise that it will “redefine” what it means to be alive — for those punters prepared to stump up the cash, that is. It’s a dubious boast, at best, with more than a whiff of Mad Men word magic in its birthing, though it’s certainly true that the wellness retreat redefined what life meant for the thousands of sentient creatures who lost their home when Bob the Builder moved in. I suppose I could follow the lead of Marx (or Shiva) and call this creative destruction, but I have doubts about the “creative” bit. To me, it looks like destruction, pure and simple. Yet the peepers are still peeping in some hidden pockets of marsh that escaped the bulldozers, and in all likelihood their descendants will be celebrating the return of the sun to these latitudes long after the wellness retreat has subsided into the rubbish-filled pit on which it now stands. Maybe Marx and Shiva were right, after all.
In any event, I’ve always preferred engagement to retreat. I’d much rather come to grips with the larger world than withdraw into self-centered solipsism. And with that in mind, I periodically rediscover what it means to be alive — I’ve no need to “redefine” it; the original definition is good enough for me, thanks just the same — by canoeing in local beaver ponds and exploring creeks too small to appear on the latest quads. In short, I’ve learned that intimate contact with the living world, however brief the encounter and no matter how damaged the environment, is invariably therapeutic. Happily, canoeing is one of the best ways to forge this restorative connection with life’s continuum. Why is this, you ask? Because, unlike powercraft, canoes are quiet. I need never wonder if “I dare disturb the universe.” I glide over still waters in silence, a silence so profound that even my perpetually ringing ears can distinguish the shy, wavering note of a warbler on a distant shore.
The bottom line? In choosing to make my personal watercraft a canoe rather than a jetski or outboard runabout, I may indeed have chosen the path less traveled by, but as someone once remarked in a slightly different context, that has made all the difference — the difference between destruction and creation, if you will. And if that’s not reason for hope, I don’t know what is.
And next week? We’ve done hope. What’s left? Well, how about love and joy? Sounds good to me.
What does it mean to say you have a passion for paddling? That’s the question Farwell set himself to answer last week. Then his subject was hope. This time around it’s love and joy. What’s not to like about that?
A Passion for Paddling: Putting the Joie Back in Vivre
by Farwell Forrest | June 27, 2017
Can you have a passion for paddling — as distinct from a passion for pasta (or pot noodles), that is? I’ve suggested that you can. At any rate, I know that I do, and I know I’m not alone. But there are many passions, are there not? Last week I examined how canoeing engendered hope, even in a time when hope is mighty hard to come by. And this week? My subjects are love and joy.
Of course, it’s difficult to write about either of these without sounding like a street‑corner evangelist — or a real estate agent anxious to keep a would‑be buyer from noticing the flaking asbestos pipe insulation in the basement. (“You’ll just love the garden. It’s a total joy.”) But this is the task I’ve set myself, so I’ll give it my best shot. And don’t worry, both your soul and your checkbook are safe. That’s a plus, surely.
How shall I begin? Well, love always gets a good press, so let’s start there:
Of Life, Death, and Love
Few subjects have attracted more writers, or interested more readers, come to that. And few have inspired a greater volume of deplorable prose. But perhaps I can avoid the worst shoals by steering clear of romantic love, in any of its infinite varieties. I’ll leave that to the poets and the chick‑literati. The love I have in mind is of an altogether different type and order: the love of living, and — closely related, but not identical — the love of life itself. Canoeing can awaken both, even in those in whom the spark has long since died.
Perhaps I appreciate this more than most, having devoted a good part of my formative years to taking life. I hasten to add that I always acted within the bounds of the law — if you ignore my occasional forays as an unlicensed hunter and trapper in my childhood, that is. But such sporting ventures were only preliminary exercises. Like many in my generation, I received an intensive postgraduate education in the lethal arts, America having decided that intervention in foreign wars was the best way to usher in an era of global peace and universal harmony. And who was I to question the wisdom of the best and brightest in the land? It wouldn’t do to give a steer a say in running an abattoir, after all.
The upshot? Before long, following the example of a certain Scottish princeling, I found myself “in blood stepp’d in so far that … Returning were as tedious as go o’er,” albeit without the hope of a crown as my reward. But then I paused in mid‑stride, as it were. And rather than going o’er, I waded out again. It was a fitful and unsteady slog at first. Were I to extend my rather shaky metaphor, I’d suggest I was weighed down by my sodden garments. But that would be a step too far. Still, as I approached my third decade, I discovered I’d even lost interest in “sportive” killing, though for some time afterward, I retained my early fascination with the emblems and rituals of the hunt. Even today, I’ll elbow my way through a crowd to get a closer look at a well‑crafted sidelock double and try the balance. The child really is father to the man.
That’s symbol, though, not substance. A vestigial remnant of a spent passion. Not long after I’d clambered breathlessly up onto the plateau of middle age — the uncertain terrain on which Philip Larkin mapped the approach march toward extinction’s alp — I got something of a surprise. I was making a belated assault on Thomas More’s Utopia when I came to the bit where the narrator takes it upon himself to exonerate the “ordinary butcher” (i.e, the slaughterman who kills “only because he has to”), while condemning the hunter (the sportsman who “kills and mutilates … purely for his own amusement”).
This was one of those rare moments when something on a printed page actually brought me up with a round turn. Wait just a minute, I said to myself. I’d been both butcher and hunter, and though I’d met very few hunters who killed solely for amusement’s sake, I knew then and there that More, the sly old fox, had got hold of something important. Yes, his contrasting portraits of butcher and hunter were broad‑brush caricatures. No question about that. But caricature — good caricature, at any rate — always contains at least a grain of truth. And sure enough, when circumstances later required that I sell off the contents of my gun cabinet, I experienced only the slightest pangs of regret.
Which brings me at last, to love, the love of living and the love of life. The first is easily lost. The oft‑invoked “right to life” can in truth prove a galling burden. Intractable pain, incurable illness, the cumulative toll of life’s necessary disappointments — any of these can make all but the most stoic among us long for easeful death. And while I’ve never sunk quite so far, I must confess that the loss of sight blinded me to much of the joy I felt in living. My world closed in around me, and since my hearing, too, has been muffled since the bloody days of my youth — an irritating buzz, my “green fly,” is a constant companion, night and day — I faced a future in which my horizons would be defined solely by the senses of smell and touch.
Luckily, however, and even though I could no longer ride a bike safely or negotiate a forest path on foot, I could still paddle a canoe. Not in rapids, of course. I could no longer read water, and I knew that the rocks, unmoved by the arguments of lawyers and advocates, would give no quarter to a sightless cripple. But I found I could safely float alone on a beaver pond, imbibing great drafts of heady perfume from the censer of the woods and feeling the gentle rocking of the boat beneath my knees. These two things, small as they were, did as much to restore my love of living as the operations which later restored my sight. I’m sure they’ve done the same for others, as well.
As for my love of life, that has always been nourished by the days I’ve spent on the water or in the woods. In my earliest years, I escaped the confines of an urban tenement by lighting out for a patch of watery wasteland beyond the perpetually smoldering mounds of garbage that stood sentinel behind my home. There, in the company of birds, turtles, rats, and rabbits, I developed an embryo appreciation of the intricacy and beauty of the living world — even as I stalked and killed that world’s inhabitants. Oscar Wilde, writing in his prison cell, famously suggested that “each man kills the thing he loves.” This was certainly true in my case. But now I find that the urge to kill has passed. My love of wild things endures, however — every kind of wild thing, without regard for the wild world’s untidiness, brutality, or indifference to human needs and comforts. And this love is renewed every time I dip a paddle in the waters of some hidden pond.
But what of joy? Well, yes, I should say something about …
Joy, Unspeakable Joy
I find that the words don’t come easily, though. The emotion? Yes. I need only shoulder my little pack canoe to feel a surge of joy course through my limbs. But could I convince a skeptical passerby to follow my example, let alone feel these things as I feel them? I don’t think so. While I’d like to think that every man and woman would be surprised by joy when first greeting the dawn from the seat of a canoe, I know this isn’t likely. If it were, canoes would be much more common sights on lakes and rivers. And jetskis would sit unsold on dealers’ lots. The world would then be a quieter, cleaner, and more joyful place. It would also be a much bigger place — at least when measured by our only “natural” yardstick: the time it takes a man to move about the earth (and over the water) under his own power. But that’s a subject for another time, and now it’s time for me to get up from my desk.
Till next week, then, I wish you joy.
And what about next week? I think I’ll take a look at bucket lists and flash mobs. I might even enlist Oscar Wilde’s help — if I can coax him out of his suite in the Cadogan Hotel, that is.
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